The Fundraising Executive

THE ART OF THE TELL; Identifying the Heroes in Your Organization’s Story

By Eddie Thompson | May 8, 2013 | Donor Communications

hero squareNo matter how masterful you are with facts and figures about your organization’s effectiveness, to move people to make institutional changing contributions you have to become a masterful storyteller. The right story to the right donor can make the difference between a multimillion-dollar gift, a token gift, or no gift at all.

That was the case with Mr. X. I had given Mr. X lots of information about the university, cited a long list of statistics about its successes, delivered personal gifts, took him out to eat catfish a dozen times, and even told some of my best stories. Nothing seemed to stir any philanthropic interest — until, that is, I told him the story of the university’s two greatest donors. What happened next was my most astounding meeting as a representative of that university (see THE POWER OF STORY: Using Historical Narrative as a Compelling Case for Your Mission).

The dramatic and bizarre next visit can be explained as a man going through a radical reinterpretation of the meaning and purpose of his life’s journey.

There was nothing overly dramatic about the story of the two donors. I had told better stories in previous meetings. However, the heroes of this particular story (our two “most-major” donors) made a surprising connection with Mr. X. The result was I nervously lay awake the night after my next meeting with Mr. X—a loaded shotgun in the corner and a briefcase filled with $12 million of negotiable securities donated to the university.

Dr. Paul G. Schervish, professor of sociology at Boston College, documented the self-narratives of 130 millionaires. Naturally, the accumulation of wealth was a central theme of each story. Schervish observed that almost every one of these autobiographical accounts followed the outline of the classic hero’s journey. Not to imply that they thought of themselves as heroes, but as in Homer’s “Odyssey,” the stories typically began with a virtuous struggle against obstacles in order to change the fate that was dealt to them. Somewhere  along the way in their journey, most of Schervish’s millionaires began to frame the meaning of their own story in terms of philanthropy.

Perhaps, something in my story of the two major donors, both self-made millionaires, connected with Mr. X’s story. However, since Mr. X had no previous philanthropic interest, most likely it was the story about the extraordinary gifts to the university that inspired Mr. X to begin reinterpreting his own story. The dramatic and bizarre next visit can be explained as a man going through a radical reinterpretation of the meaning and purpose of his life’s journey. That’s the power of the right story to the right person.

All great stories have several common elements. There is a protagonist (the hero), the tension (a past or imminent tragedy), and redemption (the hero saves the day). The more effectively you identify and develop these elements, the more compelling your story.

So, in the organizational story that you tell to your donors, what is the tension or tragedy, who are the heroes, and where is the redemption? The stories about your organization can also be framed in many ways. Each telling can focus on a different hero. For example:

  • Doctors and nurses as heroes
  • The place as the hero (the hospital)
  • Researchers as heroes (American Cancer Society)
  • Patients as heroes (children at St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital)
  • Donors as heroes (my two greatest donors)
  • Patients’ friends (friends who tore out the roof in order to let down the lame man into the house Jesus was visiting — Mark 2:1-5).

There are also various ways to develop the need (tragedy) and solution (redemption) in your stories. Remember, a key to inspiring people to get caught up in your vision is connecting the right story with the right donor.

Scott Pelly and 60 Minutes are among the best storytellers in the business. Below is a segment that aired in February 2013. It’s a classic example of identifying and developing elements of a great healthcare story. Consequently, watching this 13-minute video can be a great learning experience with regard to constructing and telling your organization’s story.

In this story about Mercy Ships, identify the key story elements and note how they are developed.

  • Who is/are the main heroic characters and who is not?
  • How is the tragedy identified and developed?
  • How is redemption illustrated?
  • How is the hero’s journey portrayed?
  • Where is the friends-as-heroes element?
  • What is the position of program statistics in the story?

I’ve heard this Mercy Ships story told in many ways — with founder and CEO Don Stephens as the heroic figure, with donors as the heroes, with long-term or short-term crew members as the heroes, with the ship as the hero, or with patients themselves as the heroes.

You don’t have to have horrible images and extreme tragedy to be an effective storyteller. 

The Mercy Ships story has many dramatic elements, but that high-drama, high-adventure is not as universally effective as some may think. Many relief or healthcare organizations work in very tragic situations, but the images they show are so tragic that they repulse and repel potential donors. Not enough redemption; not enough heroes with whom donors can relate. You don’t have to have horrible images and extreme tragedy to be an effective storyteller.

Many funding appeals present three elements in this order:

1. Statistics that describe the problem
2. Statistics that quantify the answer or program effectiveness
3. An appeal for funds

In the 60 Minutes program, the statistics on program effectiveness come at the very end and are almost incidental. Also, there is no appeal for funds; just a well-developed mission story.

Fundraising Lesson Learned: Without the right story, facts and figures don’t make much difference.

Eddie Thompson, Ed. D.

Copyright 2013, R. Edward Thompson